Sunday, June 12, 2011

Esme, the Dowager Countess of Cromer, dies

Beauty: Esme Cromer, photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1940, led an active life and was an accomplished artist, author and gardener

By David Wilkes
Daily Mail, London, June 10, 2011

        Esme, Dowager Countess of Cromer, has died peacefully in hospital at the age of 88 after a short illness.

        A former Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen, artist and author, she was a co-chairman of  the Founding Council of  the Rothermere American  Institute, an international  centre of excellence at the University of Oxford for the study of the United States. 

        Her father was the second  Viscount Rothermere and she was an aunt of Jonathan Harmsworth, the fourth Viscount Rothermere and Chairman of The Daily  Mail and General Trust, which publishes the Daily Mail.

        Her first husband was the  third Earl of Cromer, who was born into the Baring banking  family. He was British Ambassador in Washington during  Edward Heath’s premiership  and achieved great success in the international financial community. This culminated in his appointment as the youngest Governor of the Bank of England for 200 years. 
        He is renowned for having single-handedly saved the pound during a major run on Britain’s reserves in the 1960s following  the election of the Wilson government. 
In her published memoirs, Lady Cromer recalled how her husband, known as Rowley, worked through the night dealing with the crisis, staving off disaster by arranging international loans of $3billion.

Young love: Lady Cromer, seen here on her wedding day to the third Earl of Cromer, revealed she walked barefoot down the aisle to avoid being taller than her husband

        They had three children and were married for 49 years until  his death in 1991. At his funeral at the Guards Chapel at London’s Wellington Barracks, which  was attended by more than 500 people, former foreign secretary Lord Carrington paid tribute to Lord Cromer as a man who had served his country ‘well, wisely and with much distinction’.

        Her memoirs, entitled From This Day Forward, also revealed that when she married she took off her shoes and walked barefoot down the aisle rather than appear taller than her husband. 

         Lady Cromer married for  the second time in 1993 to Gerrit van der Woude, who died six years later.

         She took up painting in the 1970s when Lord Cromer was ambassador in Washington, displaying a particular flair  for watercolours and flower paintings and holding exhibitions in aid of charities.

Generous: Lady Cromer contributed to Oxford University's development and helped pay for a library

        She was an accomplished gardener and chairman of the Orchid Society of Jersey.  She is survived by Evelyn, the fourth Earl of Cromer, and the Hon Vivian Baring, chairman of A&N International Media.

        In recognition of significant contributions to Oxford University’s development and strength, Lady Cromer and her brother, the  third Viscount Rothermere, then chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, were admitted to the university’s prestigious  Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors at a ceremony in 1993. 

         A donation from family trusts helped pay for a library of American books and documents.

         In a tribute to his aunt, the present Lord Rothermere said: ‘Esme’s passing ends an era for the Harmsworth family.

        ‘She has been a tremendous support to me personally since I succeeded my father as Chairman of DMGT. I shall miss her wise counsel as the family matriarch.’

         A private funeral service will be held, followed by a memorial service in the autumn.

Motherly: The Countess seen here with her children Lady Lana Gray and Evelyn, Viscount Errington

READER NOTE: Coming across Esme's obituary on turgid, steamy Friday afternoon, I was immediately struck and enlivened (as anyone would be) by her extraordinary beauty, as shown in the Cecil Beaton portrait, and this led me to read the fascinating story of her life and that of her family and extended family. For many reasons, which I won't slow you down by tediously reciting, accounts like this make you take pause.  They also animate reflection.


  1. I had the great pleasure of serving as footman to this beautiful and gracious lady when she was with her husband while he was the British Ambassador to the United States in Washington D.C. in 1970.

  2. It's a great pleasure to hear from you. Esme was clearly a remarkable, as well as a beautiful, woman. Seeing the Cecil Beaton photo was what originally stopped my eyes on the page and caused me to read further. When I did, I remembered that I was aware of some, but by no means all, of the story. It must have been a fascinating assignment for you in Washington and I look forward to reading through your blog shortly. We're based mostly in Philadelphia, but I'm retreating north toward cooler air for a day or two. Hope it's not too steamy in Washington. Thanks for writing and please visit here again. I try to vary the menu items. Regards, Curtis Roberts

  3. Lady Cromer was my mother's second cousin. She had sadness in her life: her daughter Lana, the little girl in the picture, committed suicide in 1974 aged 31, leaving two small children.

    1. Ms. Stokes -- Thanks so much for writing. I remember putting this post together a long time ago and reading with about Lady Cromer's life with great interest. My own life has also been touched by suicide, so what you write is very affecting. I hope you visit here again soon. Curtis Roberts